Monthly Archives: April 2015

The California Drought and Inequality: So What’s New?

There was once water here

There was once water here

At first blush, the California Drought and Inequality are not intimately related. Yes, some class warfare has broken out around water usage and new conservation rules.   But that’s not what the title of the blog post is about.  What do the California Drought and Economic Inequality in the U.S. have in common?  The answer is: Neither are nearly as unique or exceptional, as we’re prone to think, because of our blinders and narrow perspectives.  In the great span of geologic time and economic history, each problem, in it’s own realm,  is more the norm, than the exception; more typical than unusual,  It’s important to know this, because, as the adage goes, you must know your enemy to defeat him.

On the Economic Inequality side, it is gradually sinking-in that the period of (relative) equality during the roughly 40 years after World War II, is an historical anomaly for the U.S; an exceptional era, when stars were aligned to create a large middle class that included a large swathe of the “working class.”

On the Drought side, you may be very surprised to learn that the period of explosive growth in Southern California (and the rest of the Southwest) — the 1970s, 80s, and 90s — occurred during the wettest decades in the last two millennia.  Yes, that’s 2000 years, or back to “ancient times.”  That’s not at all exaggerated. Scientists at the U. of Arizona and Columbia U. have built a remarkable hydrology data base dating back to ancient times, which says that the areas we know as California and the U,S. Southwest experienced numerous droughts in the past, more severe than the current one, lasting decades, not just a few years. Read about it and listen to a riveting discussion here.  If you want more technical (and cool) information, try this and this.

Thus, water conditions in Southern California (and most of the Southwest) over the last 15 years would have been considered normal, neither unprecedented nor dire, centuries ago. The situation today is dire” only because we built civilizations where nature may not have intended.  And the technology and ingenuity to overcome nature, may have reached its limits. The situation is real bad.  Here are some amazing photographs of today’s California Dust Bowl.  These are not shown much outside California, because the disaster is proceeding too slowly for the appetites of cable and network news.

Don’t hold your breath or bet on California pistachios while waiting for cheap Mega Desalinization, though MIT is trying hard to overcome the expense and impracticalities of using sea water for drinking and irrigation.  Stay tuned.  Another avenue of hope are the amazing Israeli desalinization efforts, to the point where Israel now has more water than it can use.

In terms of the economy, the several decades from the end of World War II, through the late 1970s, which liberals view as a model for compassionate capitalism, is glaringly atypical in American history, at least back to about 1910.  Piketty & Saez, have documented that, to the satisfaction of most mainstream economists.  You can find all of that data if you start from here.  There is some evidence that Inequality was also the general rule in the U.S. for most of the 19th century, but that is much harder to confirm.

The precise conditions making it possible for wider prosperity in the decades following WW II were never sustainable; some of the factors we don’t want repeated.  The special circumstances include the Great Depression, which ushered in New Deal regulatory, tax, and labor reforms; the economic boost from World War II, the mother of all stimulus packages; and America’s emergence from the Great War as the only intact industrial economy in the world.

The best advice to Drought warriors: Start looking at the Drought as something that doesn’t just end in a few years. The best counsel for Inequality warriors: Stop looking at Inequality as something that will correct itself as soon as job growth accelerates and labor markets tighten.

One difference between the California (Southwest) Drought and Economic Inequality is that lack of water in the Region is natural (going back at least two millennia); while Inequality (arguably) is not natural, not an inevitable result of capitalism, globalization, or human DNA. The leading academic behind the view that Inequality is man made, and can be lessened considerably, with the right policies, and to the betterment of all, is Joseph Stiglitz. He’s a capitalist of the Roosevelt variety (both Teddy and FDR). He’s not a communist.

Am sure you are asking whether human caused global warming is contributing to the Great Drought, which would mean it’s not totally natural. In fact, most mainstream climate scientists believe global warming caused by humans, is exacerbating the current Drought; making it worse than it would otherwise be. You can read about some of that here and here.

Whether or not you believe the Drought or Inequality is a return to a natural state of affairs, it appears there is more hope for rebuilding the U.S. middle class, than for preserving the California life style, as we’ve known it.  There may be other good reasons for not preserving all of it.

After the U.S. middle class has been rehabilitated, they may not be flocking in such large numbers to California, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Texas anymore.  If the Great Drought had happened sooner, the Dodgers might still be in Brooklyn.

Advertisements

Channeling Elizabeth Warren: What an Uncensored Liz Might Say About the Hillary Clinton Announcement

What was Elizabeth Warren thinking as Hillary Clinton formally announced her candidacy for President?   What would Liz be saying if she was not a realistic and committed Democrat?  Let’s channel the more aggressive, less practical side of the Massachusetts Senator, imagining what she might tweet.  On the Sunday morning talk shows, Liz says she too is “ready for Hillary.”   Perhaps she really is!  The line that stood out most from Hillary’s announcement yesterday was: “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.” That’s vintage Warren.

Nonetheless, here are five imaginary, edgy Warren tweets that were never sent. And won’t be.

1. Over more than two decades, the Clintons advanced and accelerated fundamental policies which have helped America edge closer to oligarchy than it’s been in more than a 100 years.

[Ed. Note: This process began well before the Clintons arrived on the scene. The U.S. is perhaps at a quarter to twelve on that clock; not yet mid night].

2. Bill and Hillary drank a lot of the post 1970s De-regulation Kool-Aid, some of which was sound and needed; but overall (in its zealotry) harmed a lot of average people.

[Ed.Note: The post 1970s De-regulation Movement, reversed a lot of Progressive era and New Deal policies aimed at (harmful) concentrations of wealth and power and protections for consumers and labor. While some deregulation fostered more competition, a good (rhetorical question) looms: “Is there a single example of consumer prices going down and market competition increasing after deregulation of a U.S. industry?”]

3. Speaking of deregulation, the Clintons were totally on board to gut decades old financial regulations in 1999 which had protected average people’s money from being squandered in risky big bank investments.

[Ed. Note: In 1999, Democrats led by Bill Clinton and Republicans by Senator Phil Gramm, repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which had (among other things), separated commercial and investment banking. That enabled big banks to use the money of average people and (barely) middle class home buyers to make risky investments. The ensuing crash decimated the wealth in the middle.  Repeal of Glass-Steagall was of course not the only reason for the crash, but it played a big part].

4. The Clintons have been gung-ho NAFTA style free traders, and brought a lot of other Democrats with them. The form of free trade they supported helped decimate the wages and benefits of U.S. workers.

[Ed. Note: For U.S. multinational companies, in particular, NAFTA has been a way to keep a lid on worker wages and benefits, and avoid thorny regulations (which presumably restrain trade).  This is not your father’s, nor David Ricardo and Adam Smith, Classic Free Trade. There is evidence that trade pacts help nations avoid conflict. That’s good. But that has costs which need to be borne by all of society, not just average people].

5. Clintonian Welfare Reform left many poor people with no work or low wage, subsistence jobs. Democrats’ support for “welfare reform” helped feed Republican ideology around “free-loading” and Romney’s 47 percent theory.

[Ed. Note: New Deal and Great Society welfare (public assistance) needed to be reformed. But Clinton policies were long on getting people off welfare rolls (and maybe into work), and short on providing the right training (or apprenticeships) to find decent paying jobs. These are the main criticisms of Clinton welfare reform.  Arguments that trumpet the policy’s success are represented here].

Channeling Elizabeth Warren’s aggressive side as it might view the Clinton presidential candidacy was a revelation.  It was soon clear that most of the words pouring out didn’t do a very good job of separating Hillary from Bill. Is that sexist?  And unfair?  Perhaps both,  though surely not intentionally.

The problem is that we don’t know very much about Hillary’s position on wage stagnation, inequality, financial sector regulation, free trade, the condition of the middle class, and many  other core and defining financial and economic issues of our time.

That’s partly because Hillary dealt mostly in foreign affairs during the years these issues have been front and center.  But she has also avoided saying much about them, beyond high level generalities.  She won’t be able to continue doing that much longer.

If she watched the video announcing Hillary’s presidential run, am sure that Warren appreciated her saying “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.”  That is, indeed, vintage Warren!   But it still falls in the platitudinous category.  It will be fascinating to see how the cross word puzzle is filled-in over the next twenty months.

Automatic Voter Registration: Is Oregon’s New Law a Game Changer?

A Path for Voters?

A Path for Voters? [click on photo to check out Irv Lefberg Photograph]

The short answer is: Oregon’a automatic registration law isn’t about to spread like wildfire to other states, where most legislatures and governors are trying to make it harder, not easier, for citizens to vote. Ballot measures in the states may be a way for other states to adopt the Oregon approach. But if the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case dealing with legislative re-districting, limits what voters can do to change electoral laws, the Oregon measure is even less likely to spread. Still, if you favor gains in voter turnout, Oregon’s effort is an inspiration.

(Maybe ALEC, the aggressive and wildly successful, conservative organization that provides model legislation for its ideological comrades in state legislatures, will make automatic voting spring up all over the U.S.    Just kidding, of course).

By almost any gauge, the state of Oregon took a radical step toward making it possible for every citizen over the age of eighteen to vote. The State passed a law which automatically registers everyone who has official contact with its motor vehicle department (DMV). The Oregon law allows an automatically registered voter to opt out. Of course, non-citizens won’t be registered.

You may recall the 1993 federal measure, dubbed “Motor-Voter,” requiring state DMVs to provide opportunities for voter registration.  Motor-Voter is an ancestor of the Oregon law. In retrospect, that law, maybe radical for it’s time, was toothless and passive by comparison. Oregon’s measure can rightly be called “Motor -Voter” on steroids.

A few say Oregon wimped out by not making voting compulsory, like in Australia.  Deep skepticism about the value of every citizen voting is in America’s DNA, starting with our Constitution. If every state adopted the Oregon method, another 50 million people would be (automatically) eligible to vote. That would elate some, and horrify others.

As mentioned earlier, Oregon didn’t go as far as Australia, and about ten other democracies in the world that legally require citizens to vote.  Does compulsory voting sound excessive? Perhaps. But In Australia you wouldn’t have a situation, like in the 2014 U.S. mid term elections, where about 18 to 25 percent of the adult citizenry (depending how you calculate it), gave Republicans control of the U.S. Senate and two additional governorships.

Rarely have any of our President’s, D’s or R’s, been elected by more than 30 to 35 percent of voting eligible citizens.  Even if a candidate garners 60% of the vote, with barely 60% turnout, just 35% of the electorate has made the decision — and that’s in a “landslide” and in a high turnout year.

Don’t look for legislatures and governors in any fiery red states, or for that matter, Wisconsin or Ohio, to jump on the Oregon band wagon. But, in theory, people in some states can push for something like the new Oregon automatic registration law through ballot measures.

Can that work?  Perhaps, in a few places, and with a lot of effort and money. But reformists will encounter opposition lawyers who say the U.S. Constitution empowers only state “legislative bodies” to change electoral laws; that “the people” acting through initiatives or referenda are not legislative bodies, and thus can’t change electoral systems on their own.

That’s precisely the argument in a case out of Arizona, recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. It involves a voter approved ballot measure which empowered an “independent commission,” rather than sitting legislators, to draw state legislative and congressional district boundary lines. It’s a highly worthy effort to prevent politicians from perpetuating their power.  (I expect the Supreme Court to over turn it).

The outcome of that case may have enormous implications for representative government in the U.S., not only for re-districting.  It can also determine whether automatic voter registration has any chance at all to spread beyond the Pacific Northwest in the foreseeable future.

U.S. voter participation has always been tepid.  For most of the nation’s history,  the Constitution and state laws denied the vote to women, blacks, and citizens under 21. Even white males who didn’t own property couldn’t legally vote in all U.S. states till 1856.  Even as legal barriers to voting were stripped away by amendments to the U.S and state Constitutions, and by Acts of Congress, voter participation rates in the U.S. have lagged behind, and still trail, those in nearly all other advanced (genuinely) democratic polities.

In the halcyon, “Leave it to Beaver,” days of the 1950s and early 60s, most political scientists thought low voter turnout in the U.S. was a good thing — that it signified Americans’ satisfaction with their economic conditions, government, and direction of the country. All was well; there were no rascals to throw out. There may have been some (minimal and perfunctory) truth to that in the 1950s.